Since it was published on Palto Alto Online and BuzzFeed, Emily Doe’s letter to her assailant, Brock Turner, has been shared and read by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Her searing account of the upheaveal of her life since being sexually assaulted has sparked outrage at Turner’s mere 6-month prison sentence and ignited a national conversation about how our criminal legal system handles sexual violence and what we can do to support survivors.
While the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act guarantees any victim of a crime the right to be heard—commonly referred to as a victim impact statement—few “go viral”. Victim impact statements offer crime survivors the chance to describe, in their own words, how their lives have been changed as a result of the crime. Victims who testify during the trial about their experience are limited to responding to specific questions from the prosecution and defense attorneys, which can delve pointedly into the victim’s personal life in ways that are offensive or even triggering. Some victims are never called as witnesses at all. But when victims do have the opportunity to tell their stories the way that impact statements allow, they often report that this process improves their satisfaction with their engagement in the justice system and positively contributes to their overall recovery.
That being said, victim impact statements have their limits. Since these statements are read after a conviction, the vast majority of crime survivors never have the opportunity to tell their stories in court. Many crimes—such as crimes that are unreported, not prosecuted, or prosecuted but the defendant is found not guilty—lack an opportunity like a victim impact statement for the survivor to tell their story. And even when they do—as we have seen in Turner’s case and countless others—final sentencing is still at the discretion of a judge, who can choose whether or not to honor the victim’s wishes.
Victims of all types of crime, from sexual assault to homicide to nonviolent crimes like identity theft and fraud, are legally entitled to be heard through victim impact statements in addition to their many other rights under federal and local laws. But respecting a victim’s dignity and experiences should go beyond what is legally required by law. Crime victims deserve to be heard and acknowledged within a safe and supportive environment, which is what NVRDC seeks to do every day in our work with crime victims in the District. Every day we see the power and resiliency of our clients as we help them in achieving survivor defined justice. And we are committed to continuing this work until everyone in our society treats all crime survivors with the outpouring of support and encouragement that Emily Doe has received.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of any type of crime and would like to learn more about our comprehensive legal and case management services, please contact NVRDC at 202-742-1727. If you or someone you know has experienced a sexual assault and would like to seek a medical forensic exam, please call the DC SANE Hotline at 800-641-4028.